Martin Luther’s famous words spoken at the Diet of Worms continue to reverberate and echo throughout the halls of Church history:
“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason (for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves), I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.”
Perhaps there is no greater example of Sola Scriptura than this: the conviction that Scripture alone is authoritative and true for all matters of life, faith, and practice.
Of course, Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms was borne from a heart that was convinced that the traditions of Roman Catholic Popes and councils had diluted the teachings of God’s Word with perverse twistings of Scripture and satanic subtilties. Luther, and many of the other Reformers, saw the sinfulness of Rome’s elite and understood that their mishandling of God’s Word and propagation of false doctrines would continue to darken the light of the gospel and lead confused men even further astray. If any were saved while hearing the preaching of Roman bishops, priests, cardinals, and popes at this time, it was despite their damnable teachings and not at all because of them.
The question, however, is a simple one: what is the difference between Protestantism’s teaching of Sola Scriptura and Roman Catholicism’s views?
Roman Catholicism Believes That the Scriptures Do Not Teach Sola Scriptura
To be fair, it must be granted that Roman Catholicism is not rejecting the authority of Scripture. Roman Catholicism teaches that the Scriptures are authoritative, infallible, and true. The problem is that they believe that not only Scripture alone, but popes, councils, and traditions can be elevated to the same status of authority and infallibility. They claim this is primarily because the Scriptures themselves do not teach Sola Scriptura.
If we attempt to proof text Scripture by looking for only one specific verse to form this doctrine, then we could, at least theoretically, have some issues. For example, there is no Bible verse that specifically states, “Scripture alone is authoritative and true.” Of course, the opposite is true too. No verse ever states, “Scripture and tradition and popes and councils are authoritative and true.” In one sense, because both Catholics and Protestants agree that Scripture is authoritative and infallible, the burden of proof is on Roman Catholics to demonstrate that, according to the Bible, things outside Scripture can carry the same weight and authority.
However, there are some texts to which Protestants can and must appeal to. For starters, there is 2 Timothy 3:16, which states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” There is simply nothing else that the Bible ever states to be “breathed out by God” in this same way. Likewise, nothing else is ever said to be “profitable for teaching, reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” This elevated status belongs only to the Word of God.
Another helpful text comes in Acts 17. There, we find the Apostle Paul himself preaching the Word of God. The Bereans, upon hearing the Apostle, take what he preaches and compare it to the Scriptures. In other words, they will not accept what he says as true—even though he’s an Apostle! —unless it corresponds to God’s Word. For this, they are commended: “Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The principle of Scripture is that all things ought to be weighed against God’s Word. My own practice is to encourage my congregation, and all others who hear me preach, to compare what I say against Scripture. I do this for two reasons: (1) I know I’m not infallible, and I may in fact get things wrong. I want the people who hear me to be led to the truth of God’s Word, and not my own misguided ideas or opinions. And (2) I trust that God’s Word is true and as I attempt to exposit and preach it, I want the people who hear to learn to do the same for themselves. But, if there is a contradiction between a pope or council and God’s Word, then it must be admitted that the problem is not with the Bible, but with the human agents who have rejected or contradicted the Holy Scriptures.
One of the most helpful verses comes from 1 Corinthians 4:6, which is where the Apostle Paul declares, “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” Once more, we have the example of an Apostle subjugating himself to the authority of God’s Word and encouraging all other Christians to do the same. “Not going beyond what is written” is a clear charge to not add to God’s Word (or take away from it).
Finally, we have Jesus Himself, in Mark 7:7, lamenting the sins of the Pharisees who Jesus claims, “in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” Jesus saw the elevation of man-made commandments and traditions as sinning against God. Equating the traditions of man to the authority of God’s Word created a vain worship of God. Though no one verse explicitly states that “Scripture alone is authoritative and true”, the doctrine can easily be formulated from simple texts like those above.
Roman Catholicism Believes the Traditions of the Church are Infallible
This may sound strange at first, because there are certainly some Protestant churches that effectively behave as though their traditions are equal in weight and authority to Scripture. However, these churches are merely exceptions that prove the rule of the doctrine. Protestantism believes that Scripture alone is authoritative, and so the Church is to always be reforming. If a tradition does not correspond to God’s Word, then the tradition must be flatly rejected or reformed to align with the Bible.
Rome, of course, rejected the Protestant view and answered the Reformation with their own Council of Trent. One of the most obvious places where Sola Scriptura is rejected in favor of the authority of tradition is in the following statement from Trent:
“In order to restrain petulant spirits, It decrees, that no one, relying on his own skill, shall,–in matters of faith, and of morals pertaining to the edification of Christian doctrine, –wresting the sacred Scripture to his own senses, presume to interpret the said sacred Scripture contrary to that sense which holy mother Church,–whose it is to judge of the true sense and interpretation of the holy Scriptures,–hath held and doth hold; or even contrary to the unanimous consent of the Fathers; even though such interpretations were never (intended) to be at any time published. Contraveners shall be made known by their Ordinaries, and be punished with the penalties by law established” (4.2).
So, in other words, if an interpretation of Scripture led one to contradict the established traditions of the Roman Catholic Church, then they were very much in danger of being anathematized.
Now, there is of course a great deal of truth that there is value in the orthodox councils, creeds, and confessions of the past. Typically, up until the Middle Ages, most of the creeds originated from Christians who genuinely desired to know the truth of the Scriptures so that they could formulate systematized statements of common faith which all Christians must hold to in order to be saved. Sola Scriptura does not deny the value of these past creeds or confessions. In fact, any Christian holding to Sola Scriptura must also affirm The Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasius Creed because these creeds are thoroughly biblical and propagate biblical doctrines. At the same time, Sola Scriptura does not prevent Christians from using terms that are not in Scripture. Terms like Trinity, Sola Scriptura, and many terms used to describe the classical doctrine of God, all originate from outside Scripture, but simultaneously agree with it. And, of course, Sola Scriptura does not preclude the Christian from discovering truth in outside sources (i.e., men like Plato and Aristotle, though not Christian, are able to teach Christians certain truths about the nature of the world).
The major difference is that Sola Scriptura recognizes traditions may be wrong and in need of reformation. Likewise, it sees that Church traditions, creeds, and councils must also be subjugated to the authority of God’s Word.
Roman Catholicism Believes That the Teachings of the Roman Church are Infallible
There are a number of reasons that Rome finally and blatantly stated that it believed itself infallible. But the majority of these reasons are tied to the Pope himself. The simplest place to see this is in the First Vatican Council of the 1800’s. Under the declarations of the First Vatican Council, Rome decreed:
“And so, supported by the clear witness of holy scripture, and adhering to the manifest and explicit decrees both of our predecessors the Roman pontiffs and of general councils, we promulgate anew the definition of the ecumenical council of Florence, which must be believed by all faithful Christians, namely that the apostolic see and the Roman pontiff hold a world-wide primacy, and that the Roman pontiff is the successor of blessed Peter, the prince of the apostles, true vicar of Christ, head of the whole church and father and teacher of all Christian people. To him, in blessed Peter, full power has been given by our lord Jesus Christ to tend, rule and govern the universal church” (4.3.1).
The primary reason this doctrine is believed and taught is because of Matthew 16:18-19, wherein Jesus told Peter, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
Rome’s reasoning is pretty straightforward from here: since Jesus invested papal authority to Peter, and since the Pope sits in the place of Peter with the keys of the Kingdom, then the Pope speaks with the authority of Jesus Himself to “loose” or “bind” things on earth and in Heaven.
This, of course, is not actually what Jesus was teaching at all. Rather, the previous verses make it clear that Jesus was using a simile to explain that He would build His Church upon the rock of Peter’s testimony. Matthew 16:15-17 reveals this truth: “He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’”
Putting this text together, then, what we find is that Peter answered Jesus’s question correctly. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Peter’s name, of course, means “rock”, and so Jesus is clearly making a statement about Peter’s testimony being the rock upon which the Church was built and continues to stand.
With that in mind, the promise of receiving the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven and being granted the ability to both bind and loose on earth and in Heaven, relates clearly to discipline within Church, and belongs to the priesthood of believers. In fact, Peter later wrote that all Christians belong to a royal priesthood (1 Peter 2:9).
It isn’t that Roman Catholicism denies the authority of Scripture, but that by denying Sola Scriptura, Roman Catholicism elevates things to the place of Scripture that simply do not deserve equal footing. All things, including traditions, popes, councils, and everything else in between, must be subject to God and His Word as revealed in the Bible.
Jacob Tanner is a husband, father, and pastor, living in Pennsylvania. Holding to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, Jacob is focused on both evangelism and reformation. He is the founder of the Sound of Truth Ministries, where they have regular podcasts and preaches whenever the opportunity arises. His passion and motto are, “To know Christ and make Him known because He has made us His own.” He can be found spending time with his family or with a book in his hands in his free time.